Sausalito poet gives voice to unheard women in Torah

Sages and scholars may argue over minutiae, but leave it to the poets to bring out the essence of Torah.

Poets like Jacqueline Kudler.

Kudler, a Sausalito resident and a much-admired local poet, has been studying Torah for the past eight years at Congregation Kol Shofar's weekly Bible study class at the Tiburon Conservative synagogue.

Now all the intellectual rigor of that enterprise has led to a string of remarkable poems, many included in Kudler's newly published collection, "Sacred Precincts."

In the poem "Sarah," Kudler humanizes the long-suffering, long-childless matriarch in a way most Sunday school kids could never have imagined:

"…What would I want

with a nation, needing

only the kingdom of

a single baby's touch?"

In the poem "Sacred Precinct," she ponders the daily life of women encamped at Sinai:

"… While

the Elders gazed upon the Blessed

Face (time sliding away to a stop,

the ground below their lives

suffused to a blue glow),

someone needed to be at the fire,

turning a roast, steadying a kettle."

"The women don't have voices in Torah," claims Kudler. "As I read it, I had feelings like, 'Oh for God's sake, here's what she really felt!' So many came out like kvetchy women. My main impression was that God constantly talked to the men, while the women were cooking."

Giving women a voice may have been part of Kudler's motivation to team up with seven other writers to launch Sixteen Rivers Press back in 1999.

Named for the exact number of tributaries that flow into the San Francisco Bay, Sixteen Rivers Press has been a labor of love for the members of the collective, with an emphasis on the "labor."

"The press is all work," says Kudler with a laugh. "The idea was do everything ourselves except actually printing the books."

That means a minimum 10-hour commitment each month, with a three-year tour of duty required of any writer whose manuscript is accepted for publication.

Members of the collective thrive in the egalitarian environment. "We all read every submission," notes Kudler, "but we all have to reach consensus. We rotate the chair, and there is no hierarchy."

Among the various members of the Sixteen Rivers collective are two other Jewish poets, Margaret Kaufman and Diane Sher Lutovich, both of whom have had collections published.

They, like the other original members are close friends and mutual admirers, having met each other through the Bay Area poetry and literary scenes. "If you've been writing for a while, you get to know everybody," says Kudler.

For poet Lutovich, Sixteen Rivers Press offered a perfect opportunity to blend art and commerce. "People know when to sit on their own egos," she says. "We keep our eye on the product at the end, rather than the individual accolades."

That process seemed to naturally bring out the unique business talents of each collective member. For Kudler, that turned out to be a flair for PR. "I've gotten a lot of good press for the press," she says.

But as much as they enjoy minding the store, Kudler, Lutovich and company remain in it primarily for the thrill of the verse.

"I've been writing for 25 years," says Kudler. "The process is the same whether you have a book coming out or not. My goal is always to write my next poem."

Of course, as publication of "Sacred Princints" neared, Kudler realized that her poems were about to leave the realm of her cloistered inner world and head out into the public eye.

"I felt a chill on the liver," she recalls. "Some poems are intensely personal. I said to myself, 'Oh for God's sake, what am I doing?'"

Lutovich experienced a similar gut check when preparing her own work for publication, but she still found the overall experience a joy.

"To have everything honed over the years, to sift through it and find what speaks for who you are, gives authenticity to what and who I write about," she says.

In the weeks and months ahead, Kudler, Lutovich and other Sixteen Rivers Press poets will present their work at readings, book signings and other public appearances. It's just part of the job for a working poet.

"I like reading my poetry," says Kudler. "It's usually a very good experience. I'm not stage shy like I used to be in front of groups of people."

But on Thursday, Kudler will be back at Kol Shofar's Torah study class, perhaps probing a verse that somewhere down the line may yield a new poem.

And it looks like she will enjoy the luxury of time in the process.

"After eight years," she notes, "We're only up to the Book of Numbers."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.